If it weren't for the outdoor setting, the constant chatter of the participants and the sound of metal hitting cowhide, you'd swear the setup at Columbia's Centennial and Cedar Lane parks this weekend was right out of one of those college basketball camps.
The scene is about the same: high schoolers exhibiting their talents in front of spectators, and also, peripherally, before college coaches eager to recruit these kids to come play for them down the road.
The difference is that there is no Sonny Vaccaro, the Nike pitchman who is said to be able to link the best hoopsters with the college coaches whose teams wear his shoes, and no Howard Garfinkel, whose Five Star camp is the other place for prospective high school stars to make a name.
There also aren't any basketballs, except for those on nearby pickup courts, and there are no boys, save for those in the stands.
Welcome to the Amateur Softball Association Girls 18-and-under Fastpitch national championships.
Take a stroll in the walkway between the four diamonds and risk tripping over college coaches on the prowl for the best in upcoming talent in their sport.
There's the coach from Arizona State, who stops to chat with the coach from Iowa. The coaches from Michigan and Harvard swap stories, while the Creighton and Cal-Poly Pomona coach scan their programs furiously.
This 70-team tournament, scheduled to culminate Sunday, is a big deal, not just for the young women on the fields, but also for the coaches who see these players as the pieces in their championship puzzles.
"This is as big as it gets for girls 18 and under," said Jacquie Joseph, who coaches at Bowling Green University in Ohio. "This is big for the coaches too, since every major school in Division I, the junior college ranks and NAIA is here."
Ken Johnson, the head coach at New Mexico, says this tournament is just one of many stops coaches will make over the next few months.
There was a 54-team tournament in Houston last week, and a 45-team tournament in California before that, and there is a tournament with girls under 16 in Chattanooga, Tenn., going on this week as well, but this one is the best, according to Johnson.
"We go from tournament to tournament all summer. This is the ultimate, because you're supposed to have the best teams in the country here," said Johnson.
Johnson, who, like the other coaches, must hover nearby in an NCAA-mandated phantom zone -- allowed to watch the proceedings, but unable to make contact with the players -- says the coaches come for a two-fold purpose.
The first reason is to evaluate the talent, particularly underclasswomen from areas that don't regularly get scouted.
"We're identifying the juniors, especially from areas that we don't normally catch," said Sue Enquist of UCLA. "You want to see them in this kind of situation to see if they can handle the pressure of a national tournament and to see what they're made of."
"Also, you want to make sure that some phenom from the back woods of Baltimore isn't slipping through."
The second is to make contact with summer league coaches to get tips on where the talent is coming from.
"For coaches who are on top of things, this is a good situation," said Joseph. "They are exposing themselves to the program. You're seeing kids for the second or third time. It's not often that you're going to have 60-70 teams come together like this."
If this sounds a bit heavy for a sport that in many minds hasn't risen much above the image of teams of office co-workers slogging around in slow-pitch leagues with gloves on one hand and a beer in the other, that's probably because you haven't seen it played at this level before.
"Its [fastpitch] biggest problem is nobody knows about it," said Joseph, who played collegiately at Central Michigan. "It's so quick. We can play a game in an hour and 15 minutes or an hour and a half. If you go to a baseball game, they're still playing four hours after they start."
And softball is due for an even bigger boost in 1996, when the game is played at the Atlanta Summer Olympics. Undoubtedly, some of the same young women who are playing this week for a national championship will be cornerstones of the United States' effort for a gold medal.
Wagner's and Jade Garden joined fellow local team Tangerine Machine in the losers' bracket yesterday. State champion Wagner's of Glen Burnie edged the St. Louis Stingers 2-1 before falling to Team Valley of Vancouver, Wash., 3-1. East Region champ Jade Garden, also of Glen Burnie, was edged by Oklahoma City Ultimate, 1-0, in eight innings.